So You Want to Be a Published Author . . .

I met once with a friend of a friend who was writing a book and wanted to talk about getting it published. I make it a policy not to give publishing advice, mainly because I don’t have any reliable advice to give. But for some reason I met with this writer. Perhaps I had not yet established my not-talking-about-publishing policy. Perhaps this meeting was the very reason I established the policy.

This writer was getting close to the end of her manuscript, she said, and getting it published was the most important thing in the world.

The most important thing? I asked. In the world?

Yes, she said. She had poured her all into this book, and she would be crushed if it never got published.

I asked her what she thought publication was going to do for her.

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Where Does Originality Come From?

Why do you want to be original? That may sound like a rhetorical question, but it might do you some good to answer it.

We appreciate and admire originality when we see it in other writers. One reason to be original, then, is to be appreciated and admired. But that’s not an especially good or sustainable reason. You’ll never know whether you’ve been original enough…or, for that matter, whether you’ve been appreciated and admired enough.

A less self-centric, more reader-centric approach will be helpful here. Why do you as a reader appreciate original writing when you see it? I think it’s because you feel that the writer has given you something that you couldn’t or wouldn’t have gotten for yourself.

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Love and Assent

While reading Wendell Berry’s story collection, That Distant Land, I was struck by this description of a character named Martha Elizabeth Coulter:

She was a woman always near to smiling, sometimes to laughter. Her face, it seems, had been made to smile. It was a face that assented wholly to the being of whatever or whomever she looked at.

I don’t know whether Wendell Berry is a student of Thomas Aquinas, but that description of Martha Elizabeth as a person who “assented wholly to the being” of the people and things around her sounds like the kind of thing Aquinas would say.

That idea of assent is key to Aquinas’s understanding of love. And, as I will argue, it’s a major reason to write; in fact, assent may be the writer’s most important reason of all.

I’ll be paraphrasing and quoting from Josef Pieper, who was himself paraphrasing Aquinas. (The page numbers below refer to Faith, Hope, and Love, which collects three of Pieper’s long essays.)

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You probably don’t have a time-management problem.

Are you a procrastinator? I am. I’m not as bad as I used to be, but I’m bad enough. I recently read an article from the BBC titled Why procrastination is about managing emotions, not time. As author Christian Jarrett points out, we have traditionally thought of procrastination in terms of bad time management: if procrastinators were just better at prioritizing their time, if they better understood how much time tasks are going to take, if they paid better attention to how much time they’re wasting, they would stop procrastinating and get productive. 

But the truth is, any procrastinator worth his salt is fully aware of how much time he’s wasting. He may or may not fully understand how long a task is going to take but that’s not why he hasn’t started yet. And nobody’s priorities are so confused that he actually values cat videos over productivity.

The issue for the procrastinator is not time management, but mood management. The task in front of you makes you feel bad. It’s boring or hard. It stirs up fears of failure. It arouses self-pity.

“You don’t have to monetize your joy.”

Have you given any thought to the possibility of turning your love of writing (or some other creative pursuit) into a source of income? Of course you have. It’s the spirit of the age. The Internet makes it easy (supposedly) to monetize your talents and interests and creative output. But more than that, somehow it has become an expectation that you will turn your avocations into money-making schemes. 

I recently ran across an article by Molly Conway titled “The Modern Trap of Turning Hobbies into Hustles.” She tells about a time she discovered that an acquaintance had actually made the beautiful dress she was wearing:

“Wow!” I said. “It’s gorgeous. Do you have an Etsy shop or…?” And suddenly, it was like all the light went out of the room. She looked down despairingly. “No,” she sighed. “Everyone keeps telling me I should, but I just wouldn’t know where to start.” I recognized the look of a woman suddenly overwhelmed by people’s expectations of her.

Isn’t that the way? “I like what you’ve done” becomes “So you should sell it.” “I loved your Christmas letter” becomes “You should write a book.” For that matter, “You’ve had some interesting experiences” becomes “You should write a book.”

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Here’s to Failed Resolutions

It’s the last day of 2019. Are you thinking about your goals and resolutions for 2020? This time last year I wrote about the importance of focusing more on habits than on goals in our New Year’s resolutions–that is to say, focusing on process rather than results (or, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, “take no thought of the harvest/ But only of proper sowing.”) There’s nothing wrong with goals, of course. I’m just suggesting that if you do have writing goals for 2020 (completing a manuscript, for instance, or getting an essay published), think about the daily habits that will move you toward that goal, and make those habits the focus of any resolutions you make.

For many years I gave up on New Year’s resolutions altogether. One can only fail so many years in a row before one starts to feel like a fool for making grand declarations. I can very much relate to these remarks from Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me (she’s talking about spiritual disciplines, but her insights apply just as well to writing):

I may be struck with a vigorous desire to do things differently from now on. How easy it will be, I think, to change my habits, to be more attentive and prayerful. Yet if I am not careful, this little surge of vanity will dissipate into nothingness in the daily grind.

A “little surge of vanity.” Yow! It’s painful but also helpful to acknowledge that there is real vanity in the idea that I will suddenly become a different kind of person simply because the calendar has flipped from one year to another. 

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Gratitude is a greedy kind of love

I bet you’ve done this before: you’re standing alone in the kitchen eating something good–pie, banana pudding, boiled peanuts, whatever. And you enjoy it so much that you say to nobody, “Mmmm….that’s good.”

Why do you do that? You’re not congratulating or thanking the cook. You’re not recommending this delicious food to another person who might enjoy it. You’re right by yourself.

You say “Mmmm…” when you’re alone, I think, because putting words to your pleasure amplifies the pleasure. Indeed, your enjoyment of a thing can’t be complete if you don’t say something about it.

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The Desk in the Corner

Over at The Habit Book Club we’ve been discussing Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In the more autobiographical first section of the book, before he gets to the writing advice, he discusses (among other things) his addictions and other counterproductive attitudes and behaviors. And he ends with this remarkable reflection on his writing desks:

The last thing I want to tell you in this part is about my desk. For years I dreamed of having the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room–no more child’s desk in a trailer laundry-closet, no more cramped kneehole in a rented house. In 1981 I got the one I wanted and placed it in the middle of a spacious, skylighted study… For six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind, like a ship’s captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere.

A year or two after I sobered up, I got rid of that monstrosity and put in a living-room suite where it had been… In the early nineties, before they moved on to their own lives, my kids sometimes came up in the evening to watch a basketball game or a movie and eat pizza. They usually left a boxful of crusts behind when they moved on, but I didn’t care. They came, they seemed to enjoy being with me, and I know I enjoyed being with them. I got another desk–it’s handmade, beautiful, and half the size of the T. Rex desk. I put it at the far west end of the office, in a corner under the eave…I’m sitting under it now, a fifty-three-year-old man with bad eyes, a gimp leg, and no hangover. I’m doing what I know how to do, and as well as I know how to do it. I came through all the stuff I told you about (and plenty more that I didn’t), and now I’m going to tell you as much as I can about the job…

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

My desk, as it happens, is right in the middle of things, but I take Stephen King’s point: if writing is the center around which one organizes a life, the writing will inevitably collapse on itself. Your writing has to be aboutsomething. It’s the rest of your life–the non-writing part–that gives you something to write about. 

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The Leaf-Mould of the Mind: On Influence, Conscious and Unconscious

Speaking of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote,

 it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long been forgotten, descending into the deeps.

I think of this remark whenever people ask writers about their “influences.” Writers aren’t always aware of their most important influences. Their answer will always be incomplete because they can only speak to their conscious influences–to the writers that they are trying to be influenced by, that they hopeto be influenced by. As Tolkien says, everything you observe, think, or read goes onto the compost heap that decomposes into a humus that ultimately nourishes new life. 

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Spending Our Days, Spending Our Lives

I’ve been reading through Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, and I just got to that oft-quoted chestnut, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that hour, is what we are doing.”

I have had ample opportunity to reflect on these ideas these last three weeks. I’ve been the “Writer in Residence” at Furman University (my alma mater), teaching a creative writing course three hours a day and staying alone in an apartment near campus. The demands on my time are probably less than usual, but they are different demands, and I am just now settling into a routine that feels steadily productive. Actually, I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not settling into a steady routine so much as producing from a sense of urgency; now that my days as Writer in Residence are almost done, I need to do more writing and less residing.

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